Panel Indicts Man in Cedar Blaze

Times Staf Writer

A federal grand jury Wednesday indicted a 34-year-old West Covina man for allegedly starting the Cedar fire that killed 15 people, burned 300,000 acres and did $400 million in damage as it roared through the backcountry and into pricey neighborhoods last year.

Sergio Martinez started a fire by shooting a gun into dry brush in hopes of summoning help after he was separated from his hunting companion Oct. 25, 2003, in the Cleveland National Forest, according to the indictment.

Martinez was indicted on one count of setting fire to timber in a national forest and one of lying to authorities about it. He is set to be arraigned today in U.S. District Court.

The count of setting the fire carries 15 special allegations of causing the deaths of 15 people and one allegation of causing the $400 million in damage. The allegations could mean a maximum sentence of 10 years if Martinez is convicted on both counts, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Lasater.

The fire erupted on a Saturday afternoon and was whipped by hot, dry winds through rural gullies and canyons. Fire agencies were quickly overwhelmed as the fire jumped from hill to hill, forcing thousands to flee as it cut a swath through northern San Diego County.


Before it was stopped 11 days later, the fire had become the most disastrous in state history.

Afterward, local and state officials began an effort to revamp fire protection in the county, where fire agencies have long suffered from tight budgets and a lack of coordination.

San Diego County remains the only major one in the state without a county department to coordinate firefighting. Dozens of agencies -- local, state, federal, military and tribal -- are responsible for fire protection. In some areas burned by the Cedar blaze, fire protection is left to volunteers summoned by pagers.

Thirteen of those killed were residents trying to flee down winding, narrow roads. Many were trapped and incinerated in their cars. A 14th victim remains unidentified, and authorities believe he was a transient.

The 15th victim listed in the indictment was firefighter Steven Rucker from Northern California. He was killed while trying to keep the blaze from destroying the historic gold-mining town of Julian.

Martinez has reportedly been in seclusion at his parents’ home since the fire and has received death threats. He has refused to talk to reporters.

Sheriff’s deputies who found Martinez as the fire began to spread said he was delirious and disoriented and told them he had been hiking for hours.

Deputy Rocky Laws said Martinez gave mixed responses when asked if he had started the fire. Laws said Martinez denied it but added, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry about all of this.”

Deputies have said Martinez told them he was afraid he would die unless he was rescued.

One lingering dispute about the Cedar fire is whether it could have been extinguished before it began its rampage if fire agencies had been better prepared.

Many San Diego firefighters and much of the region’s equipment had gone days earlier to help fight brush fires in Ventura and San Bernardino counties.

The San Diego Fire Department pleaded with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for at least 50 engines and dozens of firefighters. But the state agency’s resources were spread thin and the plea went unanswered.